Enterprises add open source to the mix

Like great character actors sharing screen time with a megastar, open-source tools seldom steal the limelight that shines on Linux. But those tools often get more applause from users who are putting them in key roles inside corporate IT operations.

Jeff Carter, CIO at Omaha Steaks International Inc., said he first became interested in open-source software last year when the company decided to bring its Web site in-house and link its online shopping cart application to the corporate database on an IBM Corp. AS/400. After a careful evaluation, the 1,800-employee, privately held gourmet foods company opted for MySQL, a popular open-source relational database from MySQL AB in Uppsala, Sweden, for its shopping cart.

The fact that the product was free was nice, said Carter. “But free that doesn’t work is of no value to me,” he said. What does make open-source technology valuable to Carter and others is the access to the source code and the broad-based online community of software developers continually debugging and adding features to a slew of tools that are used in a variety of IT projects.

“I’m a huge advocate of open source because the developments to the product are unlimited because so many people are working on it,” Carter said.

Limits are what Jim Caley wanted to avoid. The senior systems engineer at Graco Children’s Products Inc. in Elverson, Pa., recalls that the company needed to move a materials billing application from a client/server environment to an intranet. But the company, a division of Freeport, Ill.-based Newell Rubbermaid Inc., ran into roadblocks because the commercial products it had in-house didn’t do exactly what was necessary, and waiting for the vendors to customize them wasn’t practical.

So Graco switched to a trio of open-source technologies for its application. The company has built a Web application server using Java, Linux and the Enhydra Web application server, formerly from Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Lutris Technologies Inc., Caley said.

He calls the open-source approach “a safety net,” but “not necessarily because I have access to the source code personally, but because the community does.”

One of the more widely used open-source development tools is Tcl (pronounced “tickle”), a powerful scripting language that is included in most Linux distributions and supports other operating systems, including Macintosh and Windows. Tcl, originally from Scriptics Inc., is a popular alternative to other open-source scripting languages such as Python and Perl and, especially, to costlier commercial alternatives such as Microsoft Corp.’s Visual Basic.

“Tcl is my first tool of choice for most programming tasks,” said Tom Poindexter, principal consultant at Talus Technologies Inc., a software consultancy in Denver.

He said Tcl excels in the corporate world for projects that involve GUI programming, XML development, network coding and test automation. Poindexter has also used Tcl for applications that need access to results from SQL queries and to verify customer addresses against a postal database.

Another advantage of Tcl, Poindexter said, is that “code of any given application tends to be 10 per cent to 50 per cent the size of an equivalent program written in C, C++ or Java. Writing less code means making fewer errors, getting the application done faster and [having] less code to maintain.”

Big Risk?

The track record for vendors building a business with open-source products has been spotty at best. Many vendors have failed or quit the open-source side of the business. Financial success isn’t the issue, users say.

Poindexter acknowledges that now-defunct Scriptics was a significant contributor to Tcl’s development. “So, what happens to that tool you’re using when that vendor closes shop?” he said. “In the Scriptics case, Tcl was already free, so nothing was lost.”

Caley said this could have happened with PostgreSQL, which had been marketed commercially by Great Bridge LLC. Even though Great Bridge closed last year, he said, “That didn’t affect us at all.” In fact, Caley said, Graco has expanded its open-source application development with a critical product data management (PDM) system that uses the popular PostgreSQL and Enhydra programs.

Familiarity isn’t the only thing prompting more companies to deploy more applications built with open-source technology. Cost is almost always a big part of such decisions.

Carter, who doesn’t hesitate to pay for software that meets his company’s needs, acknowledges that the “enormous prices” being charged by database vendors “make open source much more attractive.”

If there’s a downside to corporations using open-source technology today, it’s the volatile nature of open-source vendors.

Caley said that although the community support for open source mitigates the repercussions of open-source vendors going out of business, it still creates problems. For example, when Lutris Technologies dropped commercial support of Enhydra, he said users were concerned about losing vendor sales and technical support contacts, which can be disruptive during project development.

But despite numerous open-source companies abandoning commercialized products or going out of business, the open-source movement seems to be gaining momentum.